Mayor’s Executive Committee rejects plan to bring affordable high-speed internet to Toronto

A plan to create a “city-owned, high-speed municipal broadband network” that would have made internet access affordable for low-income Torontonians will not be presented to council next week after the city’s executive committee Mayor John Tory rejected it Wednesday.

The committee unanimously approved a revised plan for the city’s program known as ConnectTO, which will be presented to council on May 11.

Committee members voted to remove a recommendation asking the board to approve a network that “would help ensure equitable access to high-speed Internet for residents, regardless of financial means or circumstances.” Going forward, the plan will focus on increasing high-speed Internet primarily among city sites.

The vote came after public deputations calling on the city to provide affordable internet access for all.

“The internet is essential,” said Earl LeBlanc, a senior and member of Toronto ACORN, a group that represents low- and middle-income people.

“Families need to be connected to the internet and it’s no longer a luxury,” LeBlanc told the committee.

Several MPs, the majority of whom were Toronto ACORN members, told executive committee members that high-speed internet access is essential, the cost is high, and people need the internet for daily activities. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

LeBlanc said the internet is crucial to accessing government services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. He said, for example, that he recently needed legal advice to fight a “fake five-year parking ticket” and was able to get pro bono advice online.

“I do everything online right now, my banking, my bill payments,” he said.

“Toronto residents can enjoy a better family life through the Internet.”

Tory declares a conflict of interest

Tory, who chairs the committee, did not take part in the discussion on Wednesday after declaring a conflict of interest due to his “ongoing involvement” with the Rogers family, trust and businesses. Rogers provides broadband Internet, among other services.

The city is said to have set up the affordable network with the help of internet service providers and the city’s fiber optic network. Several other MPs, the majority of whom were also members of Toronto ACORN, agreed with LeBlanc, telling the committee that the cost of internet service is high and people need it for their daily activities.

Kiri Vadivelu said ConnectTO in its original form was important because a public broadband network would have made internet affordable. It is sad to read a news report indicating that the plan is being revised, he said.

“It’s very disappointing. I was hurt to hear that,” he said.

Com. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 6, York Centre, agreed that there is a real need in Toronto for high-speed internet at a reasonable price.

“It’s vital for a job search, it’s vital for education, for entertainment, for shopping, for being part of the wider community. And its role as an essential part of infrastructure has been particularly acute and apparent during the pandemic,” he said.

City looking to bridge digital divide later, official says

Lawrence Eta, the city’s Chief Technology Officer, explained ConnectTO’s new direction to the committee.

“The city is not proposing to be an internet service provider. The city is proposing to use its existing assets to leverage interconnection and provide service for critical and essential services that the city provides,” Eta said. .

“And the city is looking to continue to develop the ConnectTO program as a means of excess capacity to help bridge the digital divide in the future.”

Eta said later in the meeting that staff could make a business case for a municipal broadband network in two to three years.

When the city pitched the idea for a municipal broadband network in January 2021, it said in a press release, “This network would use city assets such as existing fiber assets, buildings, lights , sidewalks and boulevards to provide connectivity in underserved areas using a citywide high-speed internet network, which will be delivered to homes and businesses by a private sector partner.

“Network access will be offered to qualified service providers, at a fair price, to generate revenue, which will be reinvested in communities to extend service to areas without access and help reduce Internet costs for Vulnerable Torontonians.

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